It’s 1966. The Kinks’ manager gives you a chance to record Chip Taylor‘s Wild Thing, one take only, on borrowed time. It’s a song of few words. Choose one and pour your heart into it. Groovy? Love? Or the vaguer, more intriguing wild? Choose well or you’ll be back on the building site forever.
By the way – don’t be fooled by the stripy fancy dress in the video. There’s a bricklayer’s heart beating desperately beneath it:
Reg Presley, The Troggs’ 25 year old vocalist, was working as a bricklayer when he sang Wild Thing (only giving up his day job when the song hit the top of the charts). Wild Thing was The Troggs’ first success in the world of pop and followed a flop. All or nothing.
Reg pays careful attention to the word wild. I’d guess he’s doing his best to convince his audience (and himself) that yes, a young Andover bricklayer can attract energetically exotic women. It’s a dream of what future fame might bring his way.
As usual, none of this will be conscious or planned. No man likes to think of himself as unattractive to a wild thing woman, but it’s unlikely that 1960s Andover was throbbing with wildlife, other than the usual sparrows and squirrels.
How does Reg convince himself, and us so effectively? By taking the word wild and rebalancing it. Holding onto the w for a nano-second more than the usual. Opening the word up so that he can pour extra wildness inside it.
Try saying wild. Better still, try saying: A lion is a wild thing.
I’d guess that your pronunciation of wild billows out a little when you reach the /ʌɪ/ diphthong at its centre. Like this. You give equal value to the words wild and thing. Possibly a bit more emphasis on thing.
Reg Presley doesn’t do that. He stretches wild but leaves thing clear and straightforward. No surprises in thing. It’s the wildness of his new lady friend that he wants to impress on his audience. Not her thingness.
Reg uses the old trick of changing wild just enough to be noticed. Willed Thing or Wheeled Thing won’t do the trick, but unrolling wild’s diphthong like Cleopatra’s carpet will. Reg spreads out every imaginable wildness on wild‘s expanded surface. His imagination pours into his voice. Your imagination fills in the details.
Reg switches his pronunciation of wild to keep your concentration focused. You’re never sure which kind of wildness he’s packed into the diphthong, but his interest in the word sparks your own.
Reg’s attention’s focused on the beginning of the word, to alert the audience that something special’s coming their way. And the d at the end? It’s there, but it’s closely plaited into the th of thing. He’s keen to link the two words closely. If English isn’t your first language – don’t leave out the d of wild. It’s there, it’s important. Singing While Thing will only confuse your audience.
As always, the words wild and thing will dance to whichever tune the singer requires. And, if you know that a famous song has laid strong foundations in your audience’s minds, you’re free to play with their expectations.
Watch Jimi Hendrix, a year after The Troggs had worked so hard to take Wild Thing to #1. Jimi knows that as soon as he plays the opening chords, Reg Presley’s version will pop straight into his audience’s mind. How does he avoid sounding like a copycat? By teasing his audience with their knowledge of the original song and his own wild reputation .
Jimi changes things just enough to ‘own’ the song. He places wild and thing on the same note (The Troggs didn’t). He gives them equal, balanced, matter-of-fact attention. Thing becomes a casual pet name. Wild becomes as tame as nice or pretty. He doesn’t need to attract his own audience’s attention to the word wild. Who’d expect Jimi Hendrix to be interested in any woman other than the truly wild variety? His audience love the thought and he smiles in complicity:
I’d say that Jimi, knowingly, speaks to the wild thing that each and every member of his audience would like to believe lies waiting inside them. Waiting for Jimi to notice and awaken. It’s the wild thing of a moment or an encounter, not The Troggs forever Wild Thing woman. It’s the fire of freedom. Reg Presley is singing to one woman and about one relationship. Jimi Hendrix is singing to everyone. Not just the women.
The Troggs, in their stripy blazers and neat haircuts, sound as if this one female wild thing who has strayed within range provides a unique, precious opportunity. As if they’re bragging to their friends in the pub. Jimi sounds as if a wild thing is as familiar as a toothbrush in his world.
Which goes to show – if you can play guitar with your elbow, you can sing the word wild however you like. But only if you’re standing safely on a platform built by a professional bricklayer.
By the way, if you want to cover Wild Thing, you’ll need to think of the silences, as well as the singing. There’s an article in Uncut here about the gaps that powered Wild Thing to success.
If you want to cover The Troggs’ version, you’ll need to invest in one of these, to make the sound that’s between silence and human song:
It’s been said that the ocarina solo in Wild Thing, like the alto flute break in California Dreaming was so surprising and otherworldly (when the audience was expecting the usual guitar solo) that it hypnotised them deep into an extra level of attention.
Without Giuseppe, carving away in Budrio so long ago and far away, there would have been no #1 hit for The Troggs, no freedom for Reg and no burning guitars for Jimi. The future unfolds in wonderfully unexpected ways.
© Sing Better English, 2015